Wednesday, August 12, 2009

184 days to go...and counting!

I have been asked to do an interview on CBC today to discuss my comments in Jim Morris' CP story that appeared yesterday in USA Today, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and on the CTV website, the Globe and Mail, Toronto Sun, and other publications.

If you didn't read the story, I was asked to comment on the impact of the 2010 Olympics on Vancouver. My first first thought was that the impact would be less than that of EXPO 86. After all, prior to 1986, Vancouver was not really considered a world class city; however, I believe the World's Fair changed that. For the last few years, Vancouver has either topped, or been near the top of the list of the world's most livable cities. I attribute that to the physical changes that were either related to EXPO 86 facilities, or which started after 1986: SkyTrain, the Convention Centre, the redevelopment of the north shore of False Creek, the redevelopment of Coal Harbour and more importantly, a new spirit in the city.

We were asked to invite the world, and we did. 22 million people attended the expo, and despite a deficit of $311 million, or perhaps more, it was considered a tremendous success. It changed our city forever.

In thinking about the possible physical legacies from the 2010 Olympics, I thought of the Olympic Oval Skating facility, which is a very impressive structure. There are facilities at Whistler and Callaghan Valley but I am not as familiar with them. (Although I have read that the sliding facility is essentially a 'refrigerator in the sky' with very significant energy consumption).

In the case of the redevelopment of SouthEast False Creek, that was going to happen anyway. Furthermore, as soon as it became the site for the Olympic Athletes' housing, the complexion of the project changed significantly. It had to be finished on time. As a result, special legal arrangements were put in place which led to the financial problems that have occurred.

While the project is very impressive, (especially in terms of its magnitude as a single phase development), and could well become a delightful place to live....and I hate to be negative...but I am concerned about the potential financial legacy of this project for Vancouver taxpayers. It could well become our 'big owe'.

Since I suspect many will question my judgement when comparing EXPO 86 to the 2010 Olympics, I think it is important to reflect on some of the lasting contributions of this fair. In addition to SkyTrain and Canada Place, we also got the BC Place Stadium, Science world, and the Plaza of Nations (ok, maybe it wasn't such a great legacy!). The floating McDonalds is not on my list!By the way, if you are wondering what happened to the Monorail, it's in Alton Towers, a theme park in UK. The hockey stick is in Duncan, and the world's largest flagpole now greets you when you enter Surrey. Ironically, the Inukshuk which was used in the Northwest Territories pavilion is now a landmark on English Bay beach, and the symbol for the Olympics.

The Coquihalla Highway was another legacy which helped business and tourism throughout the interior of the province.

While highlighting these legacies, I don't want to diminish potential legacies from the upcoming Olympics. We did get an extension of the SkyTrain and an expansion of the Convention Centre. However, both were in the planning works...there's an upgraded road to Whistler, although I for one question whether we needed to spend quite so much on the Olympic Village, I think the scope and cost changed because of the Olympics affiliation.

There will also be many legacies that are not physical. The 2010 Legacies program has been very active, especially around the province. While I don't know a lot about it, from what I have seen, I suspect it will change many people's lives for the better. And I suspect that our athletes will be much more successful than they were in Calgary in 1988 when we didn't win even one gold medal.

Coincidentally, there is one thing that has not benefited from either EXPO 88 or the Olympics...the Downtown Eastside. Former Premier Bill Bennett and others hoped that Expo would help revitalize the DTES. It didn't happen. Similarly, Larry Campbell, Jim Green and others hoped that the Olympics would have a positive effect on the community. This hasn't happened either.

Notwithstanding these comments, I am a supporter of the Olympics and hope to see them further improve the city and province. There is no doubt that our economic health over the past five years has already directly benefitted from the Olympics. While I understand the resentment and negativity of many people towards the Olympics, many of them have already benefitted. I hope they do not try to disrupt the event and spoil the party. Yes, these are tough economic times, but I would rather have a party, than a war, to bring back greater prosperity.


Tristan Johnson said...

I think that Expo 86 benefitted our city greatly. Before Expo 86, Vancouver was not really a well-known city, but the immigration and other statistics definitely show that Expo 86 benefitted Vancouver.

I love playing sports myself (basketball, tennis, swimming etc..) and appreciate athletic competition. However, I think that the main issue with the Olympics is that the Olympics and their priorities appear to be trumping other concerns. To give a few examples, a great deal of money is being spent on venues and on celebrations, but there are many concerns in our backyard that aren't being addressed. To wit, a few of the following concerns:
- Health care shortages and waits (and even more coming due to health care cuts).
- The absolutely shameful conditions endured by our First Nations people. We always mention our relationship with the First Nations people in the games, but how many natives are benefitting from the games? The Downtown Eastside and its very disproportionate population of natives is evidence of the challenges that our First peoples face. .
- Homelessness and housing affordability. Not just the poor have housing challengs in Greater Vancouver: Even middle class families have a tough time affording housing here.

The problems that I see are that both Olympic proponents and Olympic opponents have blinders on to some degree. Some Olympic proponents expect everything to revolve around the Olympics and neglect the other very real concerns of the province. Some Olympic opponents criticize and oppose the game without recognizing that the games are here to stay and that they should be proposing solutions about how we can have a cost-effective games while still working on the problems that they suggest.

Here's how to make the Olympics great without screwing over other programs:
- Cut the Olympic budget and have slightly more toned down Olympic ceremonies. People will be impressed enough when they look on their tv and see how beautiful Vancouver is. That is far more impressive than any firework display and besides, we don't need to top Beijing's display.

- Cut the Olympic budget for venue extra features. As long as the venues can accommodate the sports and some spectators, they do not need to be perfect. People don't remember the features of the pool where Ian Thorpe 'owned the competition' in the 2008 Olympics or the track where Usain Bolt burned it up. The athletes create the memories, not the ceremonies or venues so much.

- Use the money saved by these cuts to ensure that no health care is cut, create entrepreneurship and community building programs in the Downtown Eastside, community outreach programs for natives, affordable housing for the homeless, and incentives to create rental housing. It doesn't matter if the ceremony looks great if the delegates go outside and see the squalor in the downtown eastside (or many parts of Surrey or Vancouver, for that matter). If they can see positive change in the Downtown Eastside, such as community programs such as a community garden (which is inexpensive to set up), I think that will make a better impression of Vancouver and the games than any fireworks or opening ceremonies. The world will say, Vancouver has problems like everywhere, but they are trying innovative ways to solve their problems - I like this city!

Tristan Johnson said...

- Let's show the world how sustainable we are by not doing many of the Gateway road upgrades and let's get started on more light-rail or skytrain lines such as the Evergreen line. Let's truly set an example of us as a classy city.

- Let's do things the Canadian way and allow protests and handing out of information anywhere. Everywhere should be a free speech zone. We are one of the most free countries in the world, so let's show the world that we are not afraid of criticism and that we can have unregulated free speech and still host a successful Olympics.

- Let's put in stronger legislation that prevents the eviction of tenants for the Olympics.

- Let's use some of the event revenues to pay for improvements in other parts of the province such as the Interior or Northern B.C. . They had to pay similar taxes to Vancouverites for the Olympics, but Vancouverites have more venues and directly created jobs to show for it. Let's create a legacy in other parts of the province as well.

I believe that the games can be awesome, but we must change the way that we are doing them right now. The people of this province and their needs to be put first. The Olympics must be designed to fit in with our needs and not the other way around.